Carmen Alicea Rivera (Suministrada)

Washington - Yesterday’s pilgrimage to the monument to the victims of September 11, 2001, terror attacks in lower Manhattan, New York, brought for Luis Rivera the same pain he´s been suffering for nearly two decades when he lost his wife.

“19 years later, it feels like yesterday,” Rivera said.

Carmen Alicia Rivera, then 33, worked on the 96th floor of the South Building of the Twin Towers as Assistant Vice President for Fiduciary Trust International. It was the second building to be hit by one of the planes hijacked by terrorists, but the first to collapse.

“There isn’t a day that I don’t think about her. My children think about her too. It’s not easy... I still don’t believe it’s been 19 years. I remember what we ate the day before, what we did the night, the TV programs we watched. Everything is fresh in my mind,” said Luis Rivera, in an interview with El Nuevo Día.

Rivera was at yesterday´s ceremony with the three children he had with Carmen Alicia and two of his granddaughters -he has four other children from a second marriage -. The ceremony in New York had a different tone amid the coronavirus pandemic. Fears caused by the spread of the coronavirus, which has taken the lives of more than 191,000 people in the U.S., invaded the event. The audience was small and the use of masks was required.

The names of the almost 3,000 victims of the terrorist attacks in New York, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania were heard through a recording, instead of the usual reading by family members.

The memorial site includes the 2,977 victims of the 2001 attacks, and six other victims of another terrorist attack against the World Trade Center on February 26, 1993.

But the event also brought together Vice President Michael Pence, Democratic presidential candidate, and former Vice President Joe Biden, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, among other politicians and elected officials.

Rivera recalled that, by September 11, 2001, his youngest daughter was turning 16 and they were planning to buy her a car.

Back then, Rivera - whose family is from Morovis, where he lived - was circulation operations manager for The New York Times for the Bronx and Manhattan.

“I was going to get the check from the newspaper. I got a call that I had a meeting. I said (to Carmen Alicia), 'Let me go to the meeting and when I get out I’ll come to pick you up. When I’m in the office in Queens, she calls me and tells me there was an accident. I thought something happened on the train. I asked her if she was okay. She said, 'Yes, a plane hit the North Tower. When I looked out my office window, I saw the fire, right there, I started to cry and I said, ‘I’m coming now,’” he recounted.

By the time he got to the area where the Twin Towers were, the building where his wife worked had already collapsed. He didn’t even realize that the North Tower was also collapsing. He said didn’t stop crying: 'where is my wife?

I was shocked. Suddenly I felt that someone grabbed me, picked me up, and started running with me. It was a policeman. I said, 'Where is my wife? Where is the building? He said, 'Just come with me. It was not possible to breathe anymore. I saw a black ball, that was the other building collapsing, everything (that smoke) went into our faces... All that dust cloud threw us over the adjacent building (the old post office), on which the debris of the second tower fell,” he said.

Three hours later, at the epicenter of the terror attacks he recalled, “you couldn’t see anything, everything was black as if you were in a closet with the light off”.

For long days, he searched for his wife in hospitals in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, hoping she might have escaped alive. “My friends told me that I had to stop looking for her, and that motivated me, even more, to look for her. The hardest part was getting back home, looking into my children’s eyes, and telling them I couldn’t find her,” she said.

It was not until December 2001 that he decided to hold the funeral for Carmen Alicia, whose parents are from Vega Alta, where she also lived.

But six months later he went through all that tragedy again the first time his wife´s remains were identified. Then, in 2003, her wallet appeared, destroyed but with her IDs. Other remains were identified two years later. Each time, the wounds were reopened.

Rivera knows that his wife, as part of her responsibilities, helped save lives guiding her colleagues to the stairs and elevators.

Rivera -who is now a construction project foreman- and his children feel comforted with the monument to the victims, which was unveiled on the tenth anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The names of those who died in the Twin Towers are engraved in bronze.  “She is going to live forever. I have two granddaughters and they know their grandmother is there. (The older one) always talks about her grandmother, even though she never met her. She is 5 years old, but she knows that she is her grandmother. We keep her alive through her memory. It’s a place where we can go to reflect with her,” Rivera said, noting that “you feel her presence there”.